Feature by Sarah Clapp
I imagine that one of the most fun and most frustrating jobs would be putting together the soundtracks for movies. On one hand, you have the opportunity to curate your favorite songs on a cinematic scale. But on the other, you have to chose carefully in order to properly match or even establish the tone of the entire film. There are countless routes to take with compiling a soundtrack: there are soundtracks that are eclectic (The Big Lebowski features Bob Dylan, Mozart, and a Spanish cover of "Hotel California") and soundtracks that are uniform (the Graduate soundtrack is just a Simon & Garfunkel record with Dustin Hoffman staring at Mrs. Robinson’s extended leg as the album artwork); there are soundtracks that make the music a key component of the character’s identity (throughout Guardians of the Galaxy Chris Pratt’s character carries a mixed tape with him) and soundtracks that are purely instrumental and atmospheric (2001: A Space Odyssey opens with orchestral bombast and sustains the tone throughout the film). But, what makes a movie soundtrack memorable, or iconic, or worthy of being recognized for its artistic merit beyond the scope of the movie itself? It seems to me that movie soundtracks become memorable when they inform the identity of the characters, steer the plot, or compile an abundance of iconic songs for viewers/listeners to reminisce over. When songs become tied to our understanding of the cast of characters and the world they are immersed in, they become more than just the backdrop.
Movie soundtracks can impart a strong sense of time, as with George Lucas’s 1973 film American Graffiti. A coming-of-age drama set in the summer of 1962, the movie follows high school graduates on their last day of summer vacation from the drive-in to the sock hop, from cruising the strip to dangerous drag racing, all set to a soundtrack of early rock & roll hits by the likes of Buddy Holly and the Beach Boys. The ubiquity of car radios and jukeboxes in the film makes music a central component of the film, setting the mood for specific scenes and for the movie as a whole because it complements, emphasizes and actualizes the aesthetic of greasers, hot rods and neon diners, making the movie a believably nostalgic reproduction of this iconic era. The soundtrack album for the film, called 41 Original Hits from the Soundtrack of American Graffiti, thus becomes a rich catalogue for the sounds of the late fifties and early sixties. It holds an especially distinct place in music and movie history as one of the first soundtracks entirely composed of pre-released songs from popular culture, rather than an instrumental score.
In addition to capturing the sound of a specific time period or generation, soundtracks can also invoke a sense of place. The soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles has this effect, as it pulls together songs primarily from the grunge scene of Seattle in the nineties with tracks by Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and other influential grunge acts. The movie itself follows a network of young adults living in Seattle at this time, with one subplot following a fictional grunge band called Citizen Dick portrayed by actual members of Pearl Jam. But in terms of the actual music scene in the Pacific Northwest, the mainstream success of this soundtrack was significant as a breakthrough for alternative music in popular culture. By packaging the Seattle scene, the soundtrack provided the general public had a coherent introduction to the innovations coming out of the city.
Then there are movie moments when the song becomes a plot device, allowing characters to forge connections and flesh out their identities. When Wayne and Garth sing and head bang along to “Bohemian Rhapsody” with earnest, goofy passion at the beginning of their cinematic debut, the music-obsessed, slacker personas of the public access personalities is solidified. When Natalie Portman shows Zach Braff “New Slang” by the Shins in Garden State and Zooey Deschanel bonds with Joseph Gordon Levitt over the Smiths in 500 Days of Summer, good music taste becomes an element of manic pixie dream girlhood. And when John Cusack hoists a boombox playing Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” to win back the girl, a romantic grand gesture was born. In these instances, the song becomes more than ambient, entering the foreground and taking on narrative meaning.
When the soundtrack takes on this additional meaning, becoming a prominent part of the movie’s mood and a body of work that blends seamlessly into the visual and narrative story, it becomes more than just a collection of songs. It becomes a way to reflect a generation, or establish the aura of a particular setting, or transform scenes into highly recognizable movie moments. And if I ever had the incredible task of compiling a soundtrack, I would try to do all of the above.